Sunday, March 8, 2015

Watch Your Back (Cover Productions/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” movie was something called Watch Your Back, apparently shot under the working title Killer Photo — a head-scratcher of a name if there ever was one — directed by Jason Furukawa from a script by Rolfe Kanefsky. It begins with its most chilling scene; a young blonde woman showers, gets dressed and finds an orange balloon with a neatly printed note — obviously computer-generated — signed “Robert,” saying, “You didn’t think I’d forget our anniversary, did you?” She walks through her house to the accompaniment of the sort of treacly piano-and-strings music Lifetime filmmakers usually use to accompany scenes of domestic contentment, and she sees a whole row of orange balloons (at this point I started singing the famous song from The Wizard of Oz with the lyrics tweaked to the context: “Follow the orange balloons, follow the orange balloons, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the orange balloons”), one of which does indeed contain an instruction to her to follow the orange balloons. They lead to her back patio, which contains a swimming pool that is steaming in the night air, and a whole forest of orange balloons, including one shaped like a heart. Throughout this sequence our only suspense has been will the dire fate writer Kanefsky obviously has in store for this woman happen now or an act or two from now. Now, it turns out, as the heart-shaped balloon contains a note in the same sort of printing saying, “Sorry — Robert couldn’t make it,” and just as she’s absorbing that information a shadowy figure wielding a gun comes on the scene and shoots her dead. The scene dissolves into a police photo of the crime scene, and then Lifetime gives us a title, “Two years later.”

Two years later we meet Sarah Goodall Miller (AnnaLynne McCord), an executive at a struggling ad agency who can’t stand her boss, Mr. Solomon (Michael Kopsa) — she hates him so much that during one interminable business meeting she draws a caricature of him and later posts it on a dartboard in her office so she can throw darts at him, which she does with unerring aim, though she has to get rid of both drawing and darts in a hurry when he crashes her office for a quick meeting. Sarah is the wife of aspiring novelist Kurt Miller (Mark Ghanimé, the sort of O.K.-looking but almost terminally nerdy sort of actor Lifetime likes in roles like this when they’re not going for tall, lanky and sandy-haired), who was married previously and has a daughter, Teri (Gracyn Shinyei), by his earlier wife Victoria. Though he doesn’t seem to have any gainful employment and the three seem to be living entirely on Sarah’s earnings at the ad agency, Kurt has nonetheless won sole custody of Teri because Victoria went crazy and ended up in a mental institution, though she’s out now and is threatening to sue for custody now that she’s free and has inherited a fortune from a relative, which she seems to think makes her a more appropriate custodial parent than a shiftless writer who’s living off his (current) wife. We see a series of flashes on the screen that indicate Sarah is being stalked and photographed by someone unknown, and shortly after that the someone unknown sends Sarah a hard copy of one of his surveillance photos and also sends others to her cell phone via a “flash” application that makes them appear momentarily and then disappear untraceably. (One message board contributor had the same question about this plot device that I did: why didn’t Sarah just delete that app?) The movie continues in that vein, as the stalking of Sarah gets more intense, her mysterious assailant disguises himself as a nonexistent postal worker and then a nonexistent police officer, and in the middle of all this we get a scene in which a middle-aged man who looks like a cross between Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace, Mr. Spock!) and Richard Belzer rather avuncularly chats on the phone with a hired assassin for whom he serves as a sort of agent, contracting killing jobs and assigning hit people to do them. There are all sorts of suspects as to who should be stalking Sarah, including Victoria; her next-door neighbor Louise (Jody Thompson), a twice-divorced woman whom she suspects of having designs on Kurt; Jackson Carpenter (Kyle Cassie), a colleague at work who’s bitter that Sarah got a promotion Jackson thought should have been his; and even Sarah’s long-suffering secretary and assistant Julie (Darla Taylor), whom she suspects of being in league with Jackson to do her in — figuratively — at work.

Eventually Sarah traces the man who seems to have the lead role in stalking her, Vincent Strurup (Brent Stait), who impersonated the police officer and the postman and was also responsible for planting a mysterious package in her mailbox that Kurt assumed was a bomb; he got Teri into his car in a hurry, bade her fasten her seat belt, drove away from their home like the proverbial bat out of hell, then called it into the police department — only the “bomb” was a fake and Kurt got read the riot act by the cops, saying that phoning in a fake bomb threat is itself a crime and the next time he does it they’re going to arrest him. Eventually the middle-aged murder contractor gets cornered by the police in the ordinary office building in which he works and commits the proverbial “suicide by cop” — he fires at the police, who vastly outnumber and outgun him, and they take him down permanently — and before he’s killed he calls his assassin to tell him all contracts are off. Vincent angrily snarls, “This ends tonight,” and the stage is set for a final confrontation at the Millers’ home between our ordinary suburban couple and the professional killer. Only [BIG-TIME SPOILER ALERT!!!!!] it turns out that it’s Sarah who’s the professional killer and Vincent is the brother of the woman who was killed amidst the orange balloons in the opening scene (ya remember the woman who was killed amidst the orange balloons in the opening scene?) and who was a police officer when that killing took place but, barred from investigating it himself because of his family tie to the victim, quit the force and determined to find the person who had killed his sister and get revenge. Sarah, it turns out, only married Kurt as a blind (I thought, “His first wife went crazy and his second wife’s a professional assassin — boy, this guy can sure pick ’em!”) so she could continue her real work with the triple cover of businesswoman, wife and (step)mother, and at the end Sarah subdues Vincent with a taser gun, Kurt threatens to shoot her, Sarah says, “You don’t have the guts,” and Julie the long-suffering secretary (ya remember the long-suffering secretary?) grabs the other gun on the scene and it turns out she does have the guts to kill Sarah.

For most of its running time Watch Your Back is a better-than-O.K. thriller — director Furukawa obviously has suspense chops and he manages to make some pretty preposterous scenes believable even though writer Kanefsky keeps the motives of the characters maddeningly elusive and obscure until he springs his mega-reversal on us 15 minutes before the end. That weird trick ending — though “planted” by a few clues (including the opening, in which Sarah, wearing only a bra and skin-tight pants, is shown working out and keeping herself in excellent physical shape — it seems weird she’s willing to do this at the breakfast table and ignore the demands of both her husband and her stepdaughter for food — and also a mysterious closet in which Teri keeps trying to hide out and her stepmom keeps chewing her out and forbidding her to go in there) — really poisons the whole movie, for a reason director Fritz Lang mentioned in his interview in the 1969 oral history The Celluloid Muse. Lang signed to do his last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), in hopes of making a “message” picture against capital punishment. The story is about a reporter, played by Dana Andrews, who works with his publisher (who’s also the father of Andrews’ fiancée) to frame himself for a murder so he can show how easily a person can be convicted and executed based on circumstantial evidence; then, at the last minute, the publisher will come forth with the evidence that it was a frame. Only the producer, Bert Friedlob, insisted on a trick ending similar to that of Watch Your Back in which Andrews’ character really did kill the person he supposedly framed himself for killing and used his future father-in-law as a pawn in his attempt to get away with murder. Lang protested; “I cannot, I said, make an audience love Dana Andrews for one hour and 38 minutes and then in the last two minutes reveal that he’s really a son-of-a-bitch and that the whole thing is just a joke.” And if a great director like Fritz Lang couldn’t do it with Dana Andrews, certainly a journeyman (though promising) director like Jason Furukawa can’t do it with AnnaLynne McCord here!